Creating Alignment around the Team Purpose

Too many team leaders settle for a foggy, uninspiring ill-defined purpose. They incorrectly assume that if the purpose is clear and important to them, it must appear that way to their team members as well. More often than not, this assumption is wrong.

Tasks and Teams

Many organizations seem confused about the difference between teamwork and teams. Teamwork is an organizational philosophy or value system, whereas teams are specific and discrete organizational units. Often companies attempt to form team structures merely because they feel there is intrinsic merit in teams, or because it seemed like the thing to do in the 1990’s. Such efforts are doomed to failure.

The confusion stems from seeing teams as the end versus the means to the end. Teams are a means of achieving goals too big to reach through individual efforts. A team is defined by its task or purpose. The purpose of every team is to accomplish an objective and to do so at exceptional levels of performance. It is a clear task that gives birth to a team in the first place. Like the grain of sand in a Japanese pearl oyster, the task of the team is the critical ingredient around which the team will form. Regardless of whether the life of the team is temporary or ongoing, it exists to fulfill a particular purpose. Because high performance teams are invariably purpose-directed, ultimately team effectiveness must be judged by the results.

Alignment and the Power of Purpose

A clear, common, compelling task that is important to the individual team members is the single biggest factor in team success. It is the task or purpose of the team that provides the reason for cooperation. One of the biggest reasons for team failure is an inadequate answer to the question: “Why should we?”

The correct answer to this question is to achieve an outcome that each team member wants but can’t achieve on his or her own. Alignment then is the link between the individual team member’s goals and the team purpose. Individual team members want the team to succeed because if it succeeds, they succeed. When a team is in alignment, every member is highly committed to the team purpose. An Ethiopian proverb observes that when the spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion. The efforts of one combine and build on the efforts of another and the output often exceeds the sum of the individual inputs. Without alignment around the team purpose, synergy becomes impossible.

Alignment Essentials Creating alignment is one of the most important roles of leadership. It often falls to the team leader to ensure the purpose of the team is defined, clear, and communicated. He or she must make sure the team mission meets five criteria:

  1. Clear (Everyone understands it) – Don’t assume that the benefits are as clear to others as they are to you. Don’t let eloquent generalities obscure the pragmatic elements of the team purpose and related goals.
  2. Relevant (Everyone wants it) – The results that the team must achieve must not only be closely tied to the purpose of the overall organization, but also to the needs, interests, and goals of the individual members. The purpose of the team is to act as a motivational force, a source of power that fuels the energy needs of the team.
  3. Significant (It’s worth it) – The objectives of the team must not only be relevant, but also of sufficient magnitude to make it worth the effort. Further, the results of team effort must be significant to individual team members, as well as to the organization. Because teams are an expensive structure to support, the sponsoring organization must realize a meaningful return on investment.
  4. Achievable (We believe we can do it) – If the goal is perceived as unrealistic or unattainable, teams will not invest the emotional energy needed to achieve exceptional results. This is where the art and tension of goal setting reside. Certainly teams need to go after big goals and exceptional results. However, exceptional does not mean exaggerated or excessive. In a team environment, unbelievable goals sometimes go unchallenged-and then unpursued.
    Remember that a new or young team won’t achieve the level of performance of a more mature team that’s been working together for a while. In fact, a new team may even accomplish less than the sum of its individual efforts as members work through some of the basic skills of cooperation. The first few attempts at accomplishing a complex task in an interdependent setting can be awkward and cumbersome. Effective teamwork takes time and practice. The size of the goals must reflect the skill of the team walking that fine line between exceptional and believable.
  5. Urgent (We want it… now!) – A sense of urgency and timeliness is an important ingredient in achieving the alignment and motivation needed to drive high performance teamWORK. Effective leaders understand this and invest effort and creativity into identifying and communicating the benefits of now versus later. On a high performance team, urgency translates into energy to push people beyond themselves.

Alignment is achieved one person at a time. It cannot be attained through mandate or a passionate plea from the podium. Each team member must work through his or her issues of alignment that motivate their willingness to cooperate. Growth, recognition, challenge, compensation, and achievement might be a few typical reasons. As each team member considers joining the crew, they invariably weigh the costs and benefits. An alert team leader ensures that the benefits are not only clear, but are “positioned” in a manner that is most relevant and meaningful to each individual team member.

The Bottom Line

No task, no team. While relationships are an important ingredient of effective teams, the most critical component in building a high performance team is a clear, common, compelling task. The goal of a high performance team is not merely to get along, but rather to get aligned, and, through that, to get results!